Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review Club: The Mockingbird Next Door

To Kill A Mockingbird has been a staple of high school curricula for many years and with good reason; it tops my own list of favorite books and one that I looked forward to sharing with my students every school year.  Published in 1960, the novel received a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and a year later was made into the classic movie starring Gregory Peck, receiving three Oscars.  Since that time it has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold over 30 million copies.  In surveys asking what one book "every civilized person should read," Mockingbird ranks second only to the Bible.

It's no wonder that such acclaim brought instant fame for its author Harper Lee.  While she granted the many requests for interviews at first, appeared at book signings, and played an active role in the production of the movie, the limelight soon grew too much for her, and she retreated to the privacy of her home.  For the past fifty years, little has been written about Lee that hasn't been told before. When asked for an interview, she usually replied with not just a simple no, but a "Hell, no."

Despite Lee's reputation as a recluse, in 2001 Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills set out for Monroeville, Alabama, hoping for an interview with some of its residents, if not Lee herself.  To her surprise, not only did she get an interview, but she soon struck up a friendship with Lee and her sister Alice and began to think about writing not just an article, but a book. After her newspaper article was published, Mills went back to Alabama, renting a house next door to the sisters for the next year and a half.

The result of Mills' surprising friendship with Alice and Nelle Harper Lee is The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee.  The book gives the reader a peek into the Lee home--filled with stacks and stacks of books, as the sisters are avid readers--and a detailed description of their everyday life.  Contrary to her image as a recluse, Nelle (as she is called by her friends) leads an active social life.  She introduces Mills to their friends, and the two go for coffee at McDonald's, feed the ducks, and go fishing at the Lees' favorite fishing hole (location never revealed).  They visit the courthouse made famous by the book and now a museum and popular tourist attraction.
Mills interviews friends who provide insight into the characters and lives of the Lee sisters, and spends many hours recording interviews with Alice Lee, who in her 90's was still practicing law in her father's old law office.

The Mockingbird Next Door, however, is a memoir, and anyone expecting new revelations about Lee's inspiration for her novel or her reasons for dropping out of the limelight will be sorely disappointed.  Friends of the Lees share anecdotes but are very protective of the sisters' privacy.  In the many hours she spent interviewing Nelle Lee, Mills always asked for permission first to record their interviews and if she might include certain comments in her book, usually getting a negative reply.  About the only "juicy" revelation that Mills includes in the book is Nelle's recounting of her strained relationship with Truman Capote, the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird, and with whom she collaborated on In Cold Blood, Capote's most famous work.

No mockingbirds here, but the red-bellied woodpecker has returned for the winter.
Why did Harper Lee drop out of public view?  Why did she never write another novel?  These two questions that every fan of Mockingbird has always wanted to know are never really answered in Mills' book, at least not with any new revelation.  Nelle and Alice both confirm that she was overwhelmed by the publicity surrounding the book and then the movie and by the push to write another novel.  As Mills describes the town of Monroeville today with its tourist attractions capitalizing on Mockingbird's fame, including a diner named after Boo Radley, it is easier to understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the limelight.

As for why Lee never wrote another novel, we are only given her sister Alice's explanation: "When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more?  Would you feel like you're competing with yourself?"

Mills' story did not end with the publication of The Mockingbird Next Door.  After the book came out, Harper Lee denounced it, saying, "any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood." However, her sister Alice defended the book, saying her sister had recently suffered a stroke and likely didn't remember giving Mills permission.  Much has been written about the authenticity of the book, but I tend to believe Alice's statement and that Harper Lee originally did give approval of the book.  Further support is the lack of anything too revealing in the book as well as Mills' apparent respect for the Lees' privacy.

Frank's favorite perch for winter bird-watching

I have to admit I was rather disappointed at first with The Mockingbird Next Door, probably because my expectations were too high.  The book tends to ramble somewhat and is occasionally repetitive, and "the stories that need to be told," according to the sisters, never quite materialize.  Still, once I settled in and realized that there weren't going to be any sensational revelations, I enjoyed the book and spent a leisurely time getting to know Harper Lee and her wit and intelligence in a more informal way. I would recommend this book for anyone who has been as moved by To Kill A Mockingbird as I have. Harper Lee may have written only one novel, but what a novel it was! She will always be an icon to me.

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@Barrie Summy

Disclaimer:  I received no compensation of any kind for this review, and as always, I review only books I like.  I purchased my own copy of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee to read for my book club, and I want to thank my friend for recommending it.


  1. Having read a lot about how upset this book made Harper Lee, I decided not to read it. Sounds like that was a good decision.

  2. I didn't know about this book. Interesting. Frank is so cute.

  3. Fine review, especially all the background! I was really curious about this book after reading an article in the NYT about the controversy. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and my kids loved it too: that's why our dog is called Scout.

  4. Excellent review. I have a clear idea of what I'll be getting into if I pick up this book!

    What a labor of love by the writer--sorry there was ill-feeling when the book came out. That must have been difficult.

  5. Good review. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, and would be hard to top, for sure.

    Frank is adorable. :)

  6. What an interesting story. Maria Mills went from wanting to interview Harper Lee to renting the house next door! I loved all the background info in your review, btw. My child #4 will be reading To Kill a Mockingbird this semester. Thanks for reviewing! Your reviews are always so interesting. Oh, and there's an error in the button. I'm not sure how much you'll be online, but I emailed you the correct code. Thanks again!

  7. Very thoughtful review. I must confess I have a lot of sympathy for Harper Lee's quest for privacy. I think she was probably able to write about Boo Radley with great empathy because of her own reticence to be a public figure.

  8. Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful review Rose. Not a book that I would buy but I will certainly look out for it in the library. Your post has made me think that maybe it's time for me to re-read 'To Kill A Mockingbird', as I read it as a schoolgirl many moons ago.

  9. Pattinase, I don't read tell-all books or the like either. But Mills came across as sincere and very respectful of the Lee sisters, so I really think Harper Lee agreed to the book initially.

    Lisa, you'll have to check out my Facebook page, that is if the post shows up for you. Frank and
    Sophie are at the dog sitter's right now, and Frank has obviously made himself right at home:)

    Sarah, I have a former student who named her daughter Scout after this book--now that's adulation! I wasn't so sure about this book at first, because of the controversy, but there really isn't anything sensational about it.

  10. Ellen, thanks! I still want to know why the Lees invited Mills into their home in the first place. She does come across as a sincere, empathetic person, so perhaps they felt that, too.

    Linda, I probably wouldn't have read this book if it had been about anyone else. Frank says thank you:)

    Barrie, I hope your child enjoys Mockingbird. I've had so many students say years later that this book tops their list of favorite books, which makes me so happy. I did see your note about the button, but I'm not sure I can correct it until I can get to an actual computer. I can't seem to do any editing of blog posts on my iPad.

  11. Dorothy, It is rather ironic that Harper Lee turned into somewhat of a Boo Radley figure. But as the book shows, she's not really a recluse, and she spent part of every year in New York as well. She just refused to grant any publicity. I can see why people in the public eye get so tired of it.

    Anna, oh skip this book and re-read To Kill A Mockingbird instead! I probably read it 20 times or more, every time I taught it in my classes. It's one of the few books I didn't skim while re-reading, enjoying it more every time.

  12. Interesting. It is nice that the author seems respectful of Lee's privacy. So many people try to capitalize on other people's fame and/or fortune.

  13. Not the most enthusiastic of reviews, Rose! perhaps I'll give it a miss this time.

  14. This is on my list as I absolutely love, love, love Harper's is my fav as is the movie. A greta review and I will still read this with an interest in getting to know Harper and her story a bit more....i can see why she only wrote one novel.

  15. When people ask me to name my favorite book, I frequently say, "To Kill a Mockingbird." That's probably true for many people. It combines the best characteristics of literary fiction, and is a great one for studying and discussion. Thanks for the review of this biography. I was wondering if would be worth reading.

  16. I followed Harper's discontent on another blog and really was amazed at all the lawsuits she was initiating. She was upset this book used the word Mockingbird in the title, saying they were profiting off her work. I think she must have gotten very senile with age. Her antics were sad.

  17. Very interesting story and review. What a unique person Harper Lee must have been.

  18. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention and for the review. I think it's good to know going into it that there will be no big revelations or answers. Nonetheless, it seems like it would be a fine book to pass some winter days in the company of! I'm going to check my library's on-line catalog now to see if they have it! --Kimberley

  19. Thanks for the review, Rose! It's interesting to learn more about the author of one of my favorite books!

  20. Rose, I read the book Kill mockingbird many years ago in Russian translation. I liked and now I think I should try to download the movie on my computer and enjoy!
    I hope the 'Mockingbird Next door' will be translated too.

  21. An excellent review! Even if the book doesn't have many new revelations it sounds like a book worth reading.


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